It was during his second spell at university that he had two short stories published – A Drowning Incident and Wake for Susan – in the student literary magazine, The Phoenix. While still at university, he received the Ingram-Merrill Award for creative writing (1959 and 1960).
In 1960 he married the poet Lee Holleman. The following year, the couple moved to Sevier County, Tennessee, but the marriage ended soon after their son Cullen was born. Moving to Asheville, North Carolina and then to New Orleans, McCarthy began work on his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, which was published by Random House in 1965. That year, he was awarded a prestigious travelling fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He used this money to travel to Ireland, tracing his family history. On the voyage he met Anne De Lisle, who worked on the ship as a singer and dancer. They were married a year later. After receiving a second grant in 1966, McCarthy took his new wife travelling around Europe, staying for a while in Ibiza where he started work on his second novel, Outer Dark.
Child of God followed in 1973, and then a screenplay for a PBS film called The Gardener's Son, which premiered in 1977. After separating from De Lisle, McCarthy moved to El Paso, Texas; they divorced in 1978. McCarthy's fourth novel, Suttree, was published in 1979. Two years later he was awarded the MacArthur Grant, the so-called 'genius award', giving him the freedom to focus on Blood Meridian, the first of his renowned western novels and a turning point in his career.
All the Pretty Horses was released to rave reviews, unlike many of his other novels. It was the first of the Border Trilogy and went on to become a bestseller, selling 190,000 hardback copies in the first six months. This was soon followed by The Crossing, and the final volume in the trilogy, Cities of the Plain, in 1998.
No Country for Old Men was adapted for film in 2007 and became an award-winning Coen Brothers film, starring Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones. McCarthy's tenth novel, The Road, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Not usually one for interviews, McCarthy gave his first televised interview to Oprah Winfrey when she chose The Road for her influential book club. In this intimate discussion, McCarthy acknowledges the autobiographical elements of the book, and confesses that it was written as something of a love story for his young son, John Francis McCarthy, to whom the book is dedicated.